Well-respected urban planner and architect Linley Lutton commented on my article On the Cusp of Crap that was about comments made in the media by CUSP professor Peter Newman, and a subsequent comment by Fremantle Mayor Brad Pettitt that it was a rant. I believe the debate about urban planning is too important to ‘hide’ Linley’s comment under last week’s post, so here it is.
I suggest that far from being a rant, Roel is simply echoing the frustration many people feel when the usual industry-focused voices dominate the sustainability debate. We need better.
There are many well-reasoned arguments for and against densification of existing cities. If done properly and in the right places, densification via appropriate urban infill can have a positive impact. When done badly however it can trigger a whole range of micro-climatic, infrastructural, economic and societal problems.
Increasing density does not have to mean high-rise or even medium-rise development. Attached row houses, three-storey walk-ups, apartment houses, narrow-fronted two-storey houses and micro lots all result in significant densification in sensitive ways.
In most European cities, apartments up to five or six storeys have existed in city centers for hundreds of years. These dwelling types work because at the ground plain there are wonderful squares, piazzas, parks, and streets which the people use as extended living spaces. Importantly, people in Europe have always lived with higher densities – it is part of their culture.
In my city planning work in China we always planned the ground plain as if it was a living space. In Libya I also recommended the emerging new towns be planned to ensure the public realm and higher-density housing were properly integrated.
In Perth however we seem to think that high-rise buildings shoe-horned onto small sites in inappropriate locations is the only way to increase population density. This is of course the lazy way to increase density and is embraced by industry. Some like this approach because it happens quickly and the sight of a cluster of new towers is interpreted as successful infill. The reality is however that most of these types of developments in Perth offer little more than a dormitory existence where the residents rarely engage with the surrounding area and still prefer to use their motor vehicles for regular travel.
In the last few years of ongoing design review work I have seen the design quality of apartment buildings drop alarmingly as the government encourages higher densities. Many are very small, have internal bedrooms with no natural light and ventilation and are located so close to busy roads that the balconies are unusable due to traffic noise. This compels residents to leave their windows closed all day and night to achieve a comfortable aural environment which then requires them to run their air conditioning system all night which they simply can’t afford.
Sustainable design in terms of energy and water consumption is a low priority and the construction materials used are very rarely recycled and are high in embedded energy. Once the current batch of substandard strata apartments has been constructed they will be there for a very long time and all of this is in the name of so-called sustainability via densification.
The sustainability debate at present is out of balance and dominated by a few who are driven by narrow-focused ideologies. Roel is intuitively responding to this imbalance.